Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Basic Fantasy RPG

I haven't really looked over a new OSR game in a while and then I came across this one while wandering around Amazon.  My "recommendations" have a whole lot of dungeon-y dragon-y type stuff so I didn't have to wander far. The price is certainly right (it's under $4 as I write this) and with Prime the shipping is free so what the heck. I've read it now and have mixed feelings about it so I thought I would share.

First up it's a pretty complete version of Basic/Expert-style D&D. It's not level capped, it has a fair selection of monsters and magic items and rules for cross country travel, followers, strongholds, etc. There are some odd choices regarding mechanics: race and class are separate but race has very little mechanical impact on a character - it mainly serves to limit class choice. The number of spells per level is ... small, but after looking back at my Cyclopedia's lists it's comparable so it's really only lacking compared to AD&D's lengthy lists. If someone is looking for an inexpensive one-volume B/X style game then Basic Fantasy certainly works.

The thing that bothers me though is that this is not really a new game - like a lot of OSR games. The vast majority of it is B/X D&D with a different editing job and some changes in mechanics for no clear reason. AC is ascending instead of descending, but it uses the old type of saving throws. Race and class are separate but  but there are some new restrictions on ability scores and hit points that shift them back to being very close to the old "race as class" approach. Thieves have the same old percentile skills fixed by level but the percentages are off by a few points from the table in the Cyclopedia, and not consistently! Some are higher, some are lower, some by 10% and some by 1%! Why? It boils down to what looks like someone's house rules or personal preferences, not some kind of effort to publish a truly new game with reverence for an old style, and at that point I have to ask why? Why take someone else's house rules for old D&D instead of making and using your own?

My questions aside, it does seem to have resonated with at least a few people. There is a fair amount of support on the website, much of it provided by players and DM's. All of the rules are free there so the only reason to pay for the book is to get a printed copy. The whole system is run as open-source and mainly non-profit, which is commendable enough. The people driving it don't seem to be terribly hung up on touting their own greatness which is refreshing as well.

In the end, I want to like the game but I keep coming back to this: I'm not sure what the point of this one really is. If I like the original, why wouldn't I play the original? This one is basically someone else's house rules, it's not strictly compatible with old adventures due to the mechanical changes, and it leaves out a lot of the later expansions and mechanical refinements. Sure it's simpler than 3E or Pathfinder or 4E but it's not simpler than other old school rules including the originals! It's not terribly challenging to go get a copy of the old D&D Basic or Expert rules if that's what you like. I see 3-4 sets on Ebay right now for $10 or less. The PDF is available on for $5! Heck, if you want the uber-original the Cyclopedia PDF is only $9.99! I know the PDF's weren't always available, but eBay's been around for a long time now.

How is this better than B/X D&D? To me, it's not. Heck, If I want tweaked old school D&D then Labyrinth Lord is closer to Moldvay Basic than this if I want "authentic", and its Advanced Edition Companion is a much more comprehensive effort to add in some of the player character options from AD&D. For this particular niche, I don't see myself using it a whole lot.

When would I play this? Maybe if someone was running Basic Fantasy specifically and I was really looking for an old school game, I'd give it a try. I don't really dislike it, I just like those other options better.

Bonus Note: Basic Fantasy is home to the greatest character sheet ever designed:

So ... it's not my cup of tea, but it clearly works for some people and if this particular flavor of D&D got you back into a game then that's cool. I'm going to look at some of the other material out there for it too and I'll post those thoughts here as well.


infocyde said...

Remember the first round of these OSR games came out at a time before reprints and everyone having a cable modem at home so they could pilfer or buy PDF's. I remember at one point a copy of rules cyclopia on Amazon was very expensive, 60-100 bucks if I remember correctly. When 3.5 SRD came out a lot of authors used a shrunk down version of it to develop OSR games with the feel of the out of print books that they liked so much. So now looking back it kind of seems like maybe some of the games are "unnecessary" but each of the OSR games provides a unique spin on things with something to offer. I believe Basic Fantasy is one of the first ones out there. Not as widely talked about as say Labyrinth Lord it is still a decent system.

Barking Alien said...

Maybe I am missing the point of the OSR as a whole (which I feel is very possible. Even likely), but isn't this what all the retro-clones and reboots are? Why play any of them when what you are missing, and/or feeling nostalgia for is older additions of D&D?

Just play old D&D. Whichever old D&D is the one you like.

Are any of the OSR games impossible to duplicate by just house ruling one of the previous editions of Dungeons and Dragons?

WQRobb said...

I think that what's missing here is the realization that BF was one of the first retro-clones, was available for free, and encouraged fan participation in adventure design. It was an attempt to not re-create early editions of D&D out of whole cloth, but to take the jist of early edition gaming and allow for a few modern contrivances, such as ascending AC and letting the first level cleric have a single spell.

Now we have OSRIC and LL and out-and-out reprints of early editions of D&D available, plus other "tweaked" versions like Castles & Crusades and to some extent Fifth Edition. But BF was an early entry, and has its charms.

Timothy Brannan said...

I am a HUGE fan of BF. One of the first clones I ever got.

Chris Gonnerman said...

Well, hey, as the principal author of the Basic Fantasy RPG, let me say thanks for covering the game here. Yes, BFRPG was one of the first retro-clones (it predates OSRIC and LL by several months in terms of PDF release, and actually beat OSRIC by a year or more in print). But the collaborative aspect of the game is its main strength; there are many OSR games, but as far as I know none have brought together as many contributors with such a solid commitment to sharing.

Why not just run your favorite version of (some classic game system), rather than BFRPG or another retro-clone? Well, honestly I don't know why people go for it now... but back when I wrote BFRPG, you could NOT get new copies of the old games in any form. Even now, getting a good print copy of many of them is still pretty hard.

But hey, I'm not going to tell anyone what game to play. Like all the rest of our contributors, we just share what we've created. If you like it, great. If you don't, hey, that's fine too.

Blacksteel said...

Hi Chris - thanks for dropping by. It's always been easy to find copies of older D&D around here (DFW), but I realize not everywhere is like that. I agree that the breadth of contributors is a mark in your favor. I ask the same question of a lot of newer games too - "when would I choose this over game X" and well, newer isn't always better either.

I will say I appreciate the effort in bringing this type of game back to having more of a presence online, that was some good work.

Chris Gonnerman said...

It may have always been possible for you to get older games in your area, Blacksteel, but you couldn't get *new* copies. The impetus to write BFRPG was when I discovered my BX books falling apart. Considering that I had bought them just a few years earlier, as replacements for my long-lost first set, I was understandably unhappy with the situation.

Blacksteel said...

Well, I bought a shrink wrapped copy of the Holmes Basic set two years ago at about the original price. You'd be surprised at what turns up.

Thankfully with the PDF's out there now we can have all of it in great shape forever, new games and old.